Alaska Native tribes unite to oppose mega-mines

Groups rally against mine and other development during the 2017 Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage. Southeast and Bristol Bay tribal officials signed an agreement during the convention to combine fisheries-protection efforts. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Tribal groups from opposite ends of the state have formed an alliance to fight mines they say threaten traditional fisheries.

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Organizations representing about 30 Southeast Alaska and Bristol Bay tribal governments signed a memorandum of agreement Oct. 18 during the Alaska Federal of Natives convention in Anchorage.

The United Tribes of Bristol Bay opposes Southwest Alaska’s Pebble Mine project. The Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission is critical of mines and exploration projects in British Columbia watersheds that drain into state waters.

Frederick Olsen Jr. chairs the Southeast coalition.

“To combine with several tribes from the other part of the state should send a powerful message to everyone and especially the federal government that we want the federal government to uphold its fiduciary trust responsibility and its government-to-government relationship with its federally recognized tribes,” Olsen said.

Olsen said the organizations agreed to back each other’s efforts to protect their regions’ fisheries.

Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission Chairman Frederick Olsen Jr., left, and United Tribes of Bristol Bay President Robert Heyano hold canned salmon after signing an agreement Oct. 18. (Photo by United Tribes of Bristol Bay)

United Tribes of Bristol Bay President Robert Heyano said what he calls mega-mines are threatening indigenous people.

“Our tribes are under siege, but the unification of our people is a powerful move to defeat these toxic projects,” Heyano said in a news release.

Olsen said the two regional efforts have similar goals, but some differences.

“With our issue, the mines are in a different country. Maybe our fight’s a little more uphill,” Olsen said. “It’s hard to say which one’s harder, of course. The grass is always browner on the other side of the fence in this issue.”

Olsen said the coalition hopes to expand the alliance to tribal groups in other parts of the state.

Developers of mines in both areas say they’re safe and will not damage fish or wildlife habitat.